The Friday fish fry is a staple of the Great Lakes region. For those unfamiliar with the practice, it originated as necessity for Catholic communities, because they had to avoid red meat on Fridays during Lent, but it has basically became an excuse to drink beer, eat fried fish, and mingle on a weekly basis. While it is fact that no state takes the Friday fish fry more seriously than Wisconsin, there are some options around the city.
The North Side has many wonderful options for fish and chips, but there's only a couple places offering a weekly fish fry and they're mostly using cod. What's the difference between a fish fry and fish and chips? A few things. While it's not standard, a fish fry will often use local Great Lakes fish, which can be anything from whitefish to lake trout to smelts (more times than not you have a choice). Again, while it's not standard, a fish fry will also come with potato pancakes as a starch, not fries. Though lots of spots will give you the option.
To experience a traditional fish fry in Chicago you need to head to Hegewisch, an isolated neighborhood tucked away in the southeast corner of the city. There you'll find Steve's Lounge, which opened just after the end of prohibition. I've always considered it one of Chicago's most beautiful and well preserved bars. (As far as I'm concerned, there's a few in this neighborhood that should earn landmark status from the city.)
As you enter you'll notice the bar with it's classic wooden curved countertop, a collection of figurines in a display case attached to the upper back wall, and an old school cash register in the middle. Aside from the flat-screen TVs, the next newest thing in there might be a Miller Genuine Draft poster featuring a girl in a bikini with a haircut that could only of come from the 80s. The employees are all neighbors of the customers and the Cubs will be on the TVs if they're playing.
There's also a banquet hall attached to the bar, and in the 1950s that's where some Polish women would prepare meals for events. After realizing how good the dishes were, Steve started offering some of their specialties as regular menu items. All of their sausage is still made according to the recipes Steve learned from the ladies who would cook for the neighborhood. The bar doesn't have a regular menu anymore, but food is available on Fridays. Folks will stop in for orders of sausage by the pound, while others dine in for fried chicken, sausage sandwiches, and, of course, the fish fry.
Along with the usual assortment of fish, Steve's also serves flounder, northern pike, orange roughy, cod, and on this day, bluegill. Since bluegills aren't as regularly available as the others, I decided to try it on my most recent visit.
First out comes the bread basket and with it a relish tray featuring cottage cheese, coleslaw, and sliced beets. Hey, I told you not much has changed. I try not to fill up on the freebies since the fry itself is so filling.
Shortly after I was delivered a fine looking plate of fried bluegill fillets, with three potato pancakes on the side. The local bluegills are a very mild fish, and they only need a light dusting and a quick fry. The only thing that could of made this visit perfect would have been a Cubs opening day win, but Steve's has been around long enough to know there's always tomorrow, or next year.
The only other essential element for a great Friday fish fry is cheap draft beer and good conversation, and Steve's has Old Style on tap for $1.50 and a super friendly staff that pours it.